If you leave London without seeing at least one stage show, then you'll have missed one of this city's most glittering attractions. No city in the world has influenced Western culture more than London has. This is where Shakespeare defined great writing and Gilbert and Sullivan shaped modern musical theater. London's influence isn't just in antiquity; the great work continues to this day, and if you doubt it, look at the lists of Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winners from the past decade -- nearly every year includes at least a few London exports.
Here's how to get tickets. If you are desperate to see a specific show, book tickets before you leave home to ensure you won't be left out. Check with The Society of London Theatre (www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk), the trade association for theater owners and producers (established in 1908), for a rundown of what's playing, as well as for direct links for online purchase. Keep in mind that while most links will deliver you to ticket sellers such as Ticketmaster, where you will pay a premium of as much as 20% for your booking. Only use that method if you'd be heartbroken to miss a particular show. That website also offers show-specific promotions, such as discounted tickets for families or a coupon for a free program to the show; under "Buy Tickets," click "Special Deals."
Although there are ways to snag cheap unsold seats on the day of the performance (see below), to make sure you have tickets in hand before your trip, it would be wise to look for discounts in the months before you travel. Given a lead time of a few weeks, the established website lastminute.com (www.lastminute.com/site/entertainment/theatre/) sells many shows for half price, as does LOVEtheatre.com (www.lovetheatre.com). My favorite place to find nearly every publicly available discount is the marvelous website BroadwayBox (www.broadwaybox.com/london), which posts a helpful, exhaustive listing of all the known discount codes (often more than 100 at a time) for the West End shows.
Once you get to London, there's only one intelligent place to get tickets: TKTS (www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/tkts; booth on south side of Leicester Square; Tube: Leicester Square; Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun noon-3pm; MC, V or cash for tickets, no travelers checks, up to £2.50 per ticket service charge), operated by the Society of London Theatre. It sells same-day seats at mostly half-price for all the major houses. While the white-hot shows won't be represented here, about 80% of West End shows are. Each day, TKTS posts a list of its available shows on its website, which is handy for same-day planning as well as for getting an advance idea of the kind of stuff that may be on sale when you get there. When it comes time to make a purchase at the booth, there's a window for matinees and one for evening shows. Musicals range from half price (about £25) to full price (around £55); dance performances are around £18; and plays cost £18-£23, although the prices fluctuate per production. TKTS operates a second booth at a shopping mall in Hendon, a northwestern bedroom suburb that you, as a tourist, are highly unlikely to visit.
Soho, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus are dotted with closet-sized stalls hawking tickets to major shows and concerts. My advice is strong and simple: Don't deal with them. These places are mostly on the up-and-up, but they are really only for audiences who simply must get tickets to their chosen show regardless of cost. They tack on service fees as high as 25% of the ticket's face value. And I shouldn't have to warn you about scalpers, called touts here, because they often issue counterfeit tickets or abscond with your cash before forking over anything at all. Some sightseeing discount cards, like the London Pass, also brag about discounts, but their deals are mostly for the longest-running, touristy shows and they don't save you nearly as much as TKTS would -- only around £20 off the top price.
Some other ways to save:
- Matinees are often cheaper than evening shows. (Unfortunately, they also cut into your available daylight touring time.)
- Ask about standing room tickets. Not all theaters have them, but the Donmar, the National, and the Old Vic, to take three examples, do, and they sell for under a tenner (£10). These are only released once everything else has been sold, so you can't count on them.
- Seats at the tippy top of the back of the theater can cost a quarter to a third of what the seats in the stalls do -- but bring opera glasses.
- In one of the older theaters, you can often settle for a restricted-view seat. You may have to crane your neck at times to see around the edge of the balcony or a pillar, but you'll be in the room. They cost about a third what top-price seats do. The website Theatremonkey.com (www.theatremonkey.com) posts audience members' theatre-specific opinions about which seats are good and which are rip-offs.
- If you're a student, some box offices (but not TKTS) may offer you discounts of 20% to 40%. Make sure you have a recognized I.D. card with you.
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This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's London, 2nd Edition, available in our online bookstore now.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts at Pauline's page on Frommers.com.